The therapist’s office looked out over the park. Gold curtains framed the windows, the ends grazed oat-colored shag carpet. The room was spartan; only a handful of chairs, a desk, a bookcase, and a potted plant lived there. Aging wood paneling covered the walls. To Sheila, the good view didn’t make up for the room’s oppressive vibe. She looked at Dirk and sat, her body cramped in the faux-leather chair.
“I’ve heard of you two.” The therapist’s blonde hair did not move as she adjusted her bun. “I don’t know anyone who hasn’t. You’re seeking therapy for what you went through?”
Sheila twisted the white-gold band on her finger. Although Dirk had taken his ring off, she felt naked without hers. “This isn’t about the island. It’s about an affair.”
Dirk scratched his stubble. “It’s about our whole marriage.”
“I see.” The therapist scribbled something and tapped her pen against her cheek. “Why don’t you tell me about it?”
“A week ago, I walked in on him having sex with someone else.” Sheila pulled her hair into a ponytail. She had to keep her hands busy so she wouldn’t bite her cuticles. Her fingertips were already covered with polkadot Band-Aids. “We’ve only been back for two months. How could this have happened?”
“Did you ask him about it?”
Sheila clenched her fists. “Of course I asked him. Why wouldn’t I have?”
Dirk bumped Sheila’s knee with his. “You need to get some air?”
Sheila’s nails dug into her thighs. She stood and smoothed her skirt. “I’d like a drink of water.”
While the therapist poured her a glass from the pitcher, Sheila thought about water. They had worshiped water on the island. The first few days, she lay on the sand with the sun beating down, begging for Dirk to kill her so she wouldn’t die of thirst. He’d asked her when. Be certain, dear.
The therapist handed Sheila the glass. She drank the whole thing down. Dirk set the empty cup on the table for her. Did he remember the water? Did he remember how it felt to be so thirsty?
“Go back a little,” the therapist said. “When did you first notice that something was amiss?”
Amiss, like their marriage was a painting hanging crooked on the wall. Sheila stared at the glass on the table. She had always known that they’d get a divorce. As high school sweethearts, their chances of growing old together were slim. Both of them had known that going into the marriage. Still, they had tried. For the sake of their unborn child, they had tried.
If Sheila closed her eyes, she still feel the wedding dress clinging to her stomach. She remembered the smell of roses and the soft organ music. Her mind flashed ahead to the blood in the bathtub.
Her stomach lurched.
“We were doing all right until we lost the baby,” Dirk said. There was no need for him to elaborate. The therapist had their file. What she did not know was how the island had repaired them. She did not know that the day they found water, they had made love for the first time in months. She had no idea that Sheila was pregnant again. Neither did Dirk.
“Sheila,” Dirk said, “are you sure you’re all right?”
“I was all right, Dirk. I was doing fine until you brought that slut home.”
His jaw tightened. “You know that’s not the only issue we’re here. We had problems way before Cassandra.”
Cassandra. She knew the woman’s name, but the sound of it rolled around inside her mind again. She could feel the weight of it on her tongue. It tasted bitter and metallic, like blood oozing from cracked lips. She had learned to like the taste of blood on the island. After days of dry mouth, the wetness of blood on the tip of her tongue relieved her. Even now, she could taste it. Sometimes she even missed it. She missed it right then. On the island, Dirk had pressed his fingers to her mouth. “I wish I could save us,” he had said. His lips brushed hers, rough on rough, but it was only a memory. Had he kissed her since then?
“We haven’t had sex since the island,” Sheila said. “At first, I thought he didn’t feel up to it. I quit initiating. Then I come home from work and find out—it’s nothing with him. He just doesn’t want me.”
She had her students help her make a love collage. Second-graders prone to distraction on their own, became ultra-focused when given a goal. With Sheila’s supervision, they cut out pictures of hearts and happy couples. They all pasted their finds onto a piece of poster board. When they finished, Sheila took it home with her. She had taken the time to handwrite a poem to go with the board. On the drive back to the house, she had been so occupied with surprising Dirk that she ran a stop sign and a cop pulled her over. The officer wrote her a ticket. She still had not told Dirk. It did not matter anymore. The poster board and the poem had gone out with the garbage on Monday night. Their marriage seemed eager to follow them out.
The therapist’s voice jarred Sheila’s thoughts. “Well, Dirk,” said the therapist, “is what Sheila’s saying true? Do you no longer find her desirable?” Her clipped, clinical tone made Sheila’s stomach turn sideways again. Not feeling desirable was one thing—having her feeling validated was another. Did the therapist not understand how uncomfortable she was? Sheila’s armpits were sweaty. She wanted to excuse herself to go to the restroom. At the same time, she knew she would run out on the session if given the chance. Instead, she pulled a few tissues free of the box on the table and stuffed them under her arms. Let Dirk or the therapist say something to her.
Dirk shook his head and swore. “There’s more to it than that.” He reached up and played with the hairs at the nape of his neck. His fingers fumbled for length that had been there only months before. He had gotten it cut the same day they cleared him to fly again. Tiny hairs had clung to her lips after she kissed his neck that evening. She wanted to celebrate his first day back. She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his collar. More hair tickled her nose.
He couldn’t stop yawning. He wanted to go to sleep so he could be wellrested for work the following morning. She did not sleep much at all that night, wondering how she could change her looks for him. He did not want her because she was too prim and proper. She was not as raw and passionate as she had been on the island. She was not as exciting. He preferred her as a savage. There’s more to it than that.
“What more?” Sheila asked. Some part of him still found her attractive. On the island, at least, he had found her attractive. Maybe he had been desperate. They were there alone. But she remembered the rush of euphoria she felt when he brought her the broken bottle filled with water. “I found a stream,” he had said. “I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s safe to drink from.” The cold water stung as it poured over the raw patches in her throat. Hours later, she rested against her husband’s chest as they lay naked on the sand. It had been the first time they had sex since Sheila’s miscarriage. She had been so thirsty, and he had filled her up.
Now, Dirk stood and poured himself a glass of water. The liquid spilled from the pitcher into the clear container without effort. Had it been that easy for him to sleep with Cassandra? She wondered how it had happened, how he had met her, how they had carried on a courtship without Sheila knowing. How could she have been so oblivious?
“Dirk,” said the therapist, “we’re waiting for your answer.” She rolled her sleeves up to her elbows. The room was warm—warmer, somehow, than when they had arrived in the office. Sheila thought she had been the only one to notice. A thin line of sweat dotted the therapist’s upper lip like a glistening mustache. Sheila, at one point in her adult life, might have laughed. After the island, though, nothing was funny.
“You asked me to kill you,” he said. “Every day, every night, at least once an hour.” He raised the glass to his mouth but didn’t drink. His Adam’s apple bobbed. “Don’t you understand what that does to a man? You asked me to kill you so many times. I had to think of how to do it. I came up with so many ways—God, it’s disgusting how creative I was. You cannot imagine what it’s like, having your wife beg you to put her out of her misery. You don’t know how it feels to hate yourself—it’s my fault we ended up on that island. You know it as well as I do, even if you’ve never said it.” He took a drink. “I shouldn’t have flown after drinking so much.”
“I shouldn’t have let you.”
“You saved our lives. You signaled the boat. Don’t you understand? I owe it to you—”
“No,” Sheila said, “you don’t owe me a thing. I asked you to kill me.”
“I was going to kill you. It might have been better.”
Sheila could not breathe past the weight on her chest. Moments after the plane went down, a piece of debris had pinned her to the sand. Dirk’s voice pulled her from unconsciousness. When he stooped over her, she froze. When she smelled the alcohol on his breath, she turned her head and vomited. She wanted to yell at him, scream at him, punch him in the face. But then he had helped her from the wreckage, and she hadn’t had the strength.
The therapist rose. “Are you making threats?”
“No,” Dirk said, “I’m saying—”
“There’s no need to talk about killing people then.” Her lips formed a line. “Do I make myself clear?”
“Excellent.” She sat, turned to a new page in her pad, and started writing. “Whatever feelings you two have for each other now, there’s no denying the bond that the island created. And in spite of how angry you both are, I’m confident we’ll work through these issues and preserve your marriage. Does that sound all right?”
Dirk hesitated. “I want Sheila to be safe. That’s all I care about. If you think we can make the marriage work, then I’m ready for it.”
“Sheila,” said the therapist, “are you on board with that?”
Sheila thought. For the longest time, she had fixated on a happy marriage. In the beginning, everything seemed so hopeful for them. They had a baby on the way, and they cared for each other. But then came the drinking and the baby and the island. She asked him to kill her, and he had not done it. But he had not been the one to save them. In spite of wanting to protect her, he had not been able to rescue her there. She rescued herself.
She rescued herself, and she would rescue this baby. She did not need be with Dirk when she deserved so much better. She did not need to be with anyone. She was more than enough.
Sheila pushed off the couch and stood, looking Dirk in the eye. She clenched her hands into fists, tightened her mouth, and shook her head. “No.”
“I beg your pardon?” Dirk asked.
“You don’t get to atone,” Sheila answered. “You don’t get the final say. You want to fix things? You had your chance. I gave you so many chances.” She shook her head. “I pitied you in the beginning. Trapped in a marriage with a woman you never loved because she was carrying your child. I thought the drinking made you happier. It made you more accepting. It made you want to be a good father.”
He stood and took a step toward her. “You never said any—”
“I’m saying it now.” She looked at the therapist, who nodded encouragement. She, like Sheila, felt the possibility stretched out between the couple. Maybe she could taste it. Had she ever tasted blood?
“Wait,” Dirk said. “We can figure this out.”
“I want a divorce,” Sheila said.
For the first time in their marriage, Dirk did not speak. He took a step backward and gripped the edge of the bookcase. His eyes widened. He trembled.
“Dirk,” said the therapist, “how are you feeling?”
Sheila left before he answered. As she walked out, the therapist tried to stop her. “Bill me later,” Sheila said.
The therapist returned to Dirk.
Sheila made a follow-up appointment with the receptionist. Next time, she would be coming alone.
By the time she got downstairs, a taxi waited at the curb. The driver asked her where she wanted to go. She did not know, so she told him her address. He put the car in gear and sipped from a straw shoved into a Big Gulp. Condensation rolled off the plastic. Sheila had not had enough to drink. Somehow though, she wasn’t thirsty.
She flattened a hand against her stomach and watched the streets whiz by the window.
Maybe she would never be thirsty again.